by Jane Ledwell
Dr. Alan Reesor first played the organ for a full church service when he was just 15 and got a call that “Mrs. Dobson was sick, and could he play?” As a youth, he climbed in church windows to practise the organs until he could negotiate front-door access, and he cut grass and shovelled snow to raise enough money for a reed organ for his bedroom. He will play his last service as organist and choir master at St. Peter’s Cathedral in Charlottetown this June.
“In church, you’re responsible for all services, if they want music,” Dr. Reesor says. “There’s the choir you have to rehearse. You’re always searching for new choral repertoire and organ repertoire. I practise the organ two hours a day (it was three hours I used to do at home and at the church), and dear me, it is hard work… Your week is well taken care of.”
When his week is less well taken care of, he will close out his seventies with travel with his wife Sharon, winter breaks in warm locales, and summer times at a cottage on the LaHave River in Nova Scotia.
Travel will include going to Europe for the first time since a European tour doing organ recitals in 1979. He has never been to Italy and would like to see Rome and the Vatican—“Though,” he laughs, “I don’t suppose being an Anglican I’ll have an audience with the Pope.”
His wife Sharon, he says affably, “is a great traveller, so (in her) I have a good travel agent and tour guide.” The great organs of Europe won’t be their sole focus, though the retired professor gives a fascinating crash course on organ development and construction across the continent. He admits he’d like to see the organ in Coventry Cathedral: “The Royal Canadian College of Organists paid much of the cost of the organ,” he says, after the devastation of the Second World War, and he remembers, “I was very young, but I gave my nickels and dimes to the BORF—the British Organ Restoration Fund.”
Dr. Reesor says he will miss colleagues but plans some time away from church music at St. Peter’s, to allow the choir and congregation to adjust to new leadership. He smiles that he will “go to the 8:00 am service where no one knows me and no one will ask, ‘What did you think of the music?’ I don’t want to be asked sit in judgment of my colleagues.”
He says, “I’ve never had a church choir like I have here. They are the most different people you’d ever want to meet. If we didn’t have the music or the church, they might be at each other, I’m sure—but music is a catalyst, and it’s a wonderful thing to see… And we have a lot of fun. They are loyal and faithful and generous with their time and their substance. I will miss them. But they need someone younger then me to attract some of the younger crowd.”
Reminiscing about his own teachers, he recalls his piano teacher in Ontario, Gertrude Jackson, as “not just a piano teacher, but a music teacher.” This means, he says, “you should inspire your students.” His first organ teacher, Wilfred Powell, would sing through his lessons, “and in a way, that was inspiring.” Organ master John McIntosh at Western University, “taught me that on the organ, you can’t make expression by touch, so there are ways you have to get musical expression in tempo, and phrasing.”
He recalls a talented student of his who opted for voice over organ. “Organists are rarely seen, you see,” he says. “I’m in a hole in the floor when I play. It means I don’t have to wear a tie all the time, but because you’re not seen, the audience doesn’t see all the nuances. If I sing, I can also immediately see the reaction of the audience.” Being a church organist, his only sense of audience response is the gusto of congregational singing.
What is it that inspires a congregation? Familiarity, Dr. Reesor says. But also, “It’s the bass line that really supports singing. It’s like someone going up a ladder—you have to have support, so one of your friends stands below and hangs on… It’s physical, because singing is physical.”
The physical demands of playing the organ mean Dr. Reesor is “not going to emphasize in my retirement the playing aspect, but rather the composing aspect”—after the unstructured weeks ahead to do what he’s planned to do. There is no retirement from a life of music, after all.